January 5, 2009 6:47 PM   Subscribe

What are some good books on the theory or aesthetics of photography.

I am not interested in technical aspects of, say, exposure but would be interested in what makes a good composition. I have read Szarkowski's The Photographers Eye and know of - but have not read - Sontang's On Photography. More books along the same lines would be great.
posted by shothotbot to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Some seminal texts: Roland Barthes Camera Lucida and his essays "The Photographic Message" and "Rhetoric of the Image", which you can find in Image Music Text.

John Berger's essays on photography, particularly "Understanding A Photograph".
posted by meerkatty at 6:59 PM on January 5, 2009

Sontag 4sure. Many of the postmoderns had things to say about images. F. Jameson, Hal Foster, Rosalind Kraus, anything that discusses Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and friends... Martha Rosler (I think).
posted by ezekieldas at 7:05 PM on January 5, 2009

The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History by Graham Clarke is excellent
posted by Beautiful Screaming Lady at 7:12 PM on January 5, 2009

If you're interested at all in contemporary ideas and trends, Charlotte Cotton's The Photograph as Contemporary Art is a solid overview.
posted by xo at 7:12 PM on January 5, 2009

I confess I haven't read it, but I bought Geoff Dyer's photography book, The Ongoing Moment, for a friend, and she was quite taken with it. (I also second Berger, Barthes, and Sontag.)

Here's the amazon link, and a review.

I also found Dyer's ten photography books to read list while I was googling about. (That Misrach book he names is great, too!—though it won't teach you much about aesthetics.)
posted by felix grundy at 8:59 PM on January 5, 2009

Best answer: On Photography is a pretty good starting point, read that for sure. I also really like Criticizing Photographs by Terry Barrett if you want a book that is all about how to talk about images.
posted by bradbane at 2:06 AM on January 6, 2009

Best answer: I thoroughly enjoyed Photography: A Critical Introduction edited by Liz Wells.
It covers quite a lot of ground in photographic theory and history but may not be what you are looking for if you would like to learn more about composition.
posted by ianK at 5:16 AM on January 6, 2009

Best answer: Stephen Shore's "The Nature of Photographs". Note: This is a minimalist book, but worth reading.
posted by xammerboy at 7:43 AM on January 6, 2009

By minimalist, I mean it's just very short. The observations are written like aphorisms.
posted by xammerboy at 7:43 AM on January 6, 2009

I know you asked for book references, but I recommend watching the BBC's Genius of Photography series. There are 6 one-hour episodes. You'll learn a lot. You can find them on youtube.
posted by wherever, whatever at 3:13 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Vicki Goldberg Photography in Pring: Writings from 1816 to the Present is a nice collection of essays through the 19th and 20th Century.

Alan Trachtenberg's Reading American Photographs: Images as History Brady to Evans is a great read on the historical aspects of some of the photographers in the United States in the mid to late 19th and early 20th Century.

Michael Fried newish book, Why Photography Matters As Art as Never Before addresses more current photographers.

Up thread ianK mentions Liz Wells, her book The Photography Reader is good too.

I also still really like my World History of Photography book by Naomi Rosenblum - easy to read, not as dense as some of the theory if that gets a little too heavy after a while.

And I love to look into specific photographer's books. Robert Frank has some really fascinating books about his work. Also Larry Sultan, esp Pictures from Home if you can find it - does really interesting stuff too. My other all time fav photo book is Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, from a show back in the '80s sometime. Szarkowski wrote the introduction. If you come across an image that just reaches in and pulls your heart or shakes your brain around - find out about that photographer or that image.

Some of this is not really formal 'good composition' stuff, but more social, historical, cultural influences on photography. I think looking at the pictures these books talk about, really looking at the placement of things within the frame, is a great way to learn composition. How does your eye go into the picture, how does your view flow around the image? What's light what's dark? The photographer is guiding you in a very specific way; trying to tell you something, make you feel something, or even push you away.
posted by dog food sugar at 5:36 PM on January 6, 2009

My photo teachers have all said the same thing: study classical painting. Take albums, some tracing paper and go over the compositions in the most rudimentary way. After a while you'll get a feel for it.

Why painting and not photography? Nothing in a painting is random, everything there was put there explicitly for a reason.
posted by jedrek at 11:38 PM on January 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great suggestions - a lot to dig into here.
posted by shothotbot at 12:51 PM on January 7, 2009

Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss by Jay Prosser is dense with theory but insightful and worthwhile.
posted by umbú at 9:05 AM on January 23, 2009

Response by poster: I also found Photography: A Very Short Introduction by Steve Edwards, which gives the lay of the land and has a respectable bibliography. He cites Sontag and Wells as the best places to start.
posted by shothotbot at 7:11 PM on February 4, 2009

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